What do you get when you take 2,300 people, put them in a ballpark built to hold 350, throw in the St. Paul Saints and all their bells and whistles, on an 80-degree day in mid-May?
One heck of a good time.
That was the consensus from players and fans after the Saints played their first-ever barnstorming exhibition game outside the state of Minnesota at First National Bank of River Falls Field Saturday, May 13. The independent minor league team defeated the St. Croix Valley Baseball League All-Stars, 10-0, but that's not what people were talking about when it was over.
"This was great," River Falls Fighting Fish pitcher T.J. Wink said after the game. "This is a great baseball town, so to have the Saints out here and make it even more special is awesome. I've never seen it like this before. You can't beat it."
The Saints brought CHS public address announcer Lee Adams to call the game, as well as their two-legged mascot, Mudonna, and karaoke singer Seigo Masubuchi, who performed his version of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing."
The Saints also introduced a pair of 12-day-old piglets, one of which will become the Saints official mascot and be trained to take baseballs to the home plate umpire at CHS Field this season. River Falls farmer Dennis Hauth has been raising and training the pigs for the Saints for the last 25 years.
Fans started lining up at 12:30 p.m. for the 4 p.m. start to the game, and Saints pitcher Mark Hamburger said he knew it was going to be a special day even before the team bus got to the park.
"We came in and looked down from the road and saw the ballpark and it was already filling up, and it was four hours before the game," he noted. "I mean look at the turnout, 2,300 people? That's beautiful!"
The River Falls Baseball Council brought in extra seating and concessions for the ballgame and relied on an army of volunteers to make the day a success. RFBC President Greg Peters said he was grateful to everyone who chipped in.
"There's a culture with River Falls about helping out; getting your job done and helping the community out," he said. "The parents do it and the kids do it, and when you have a team effort like we had today, good things happen. I mean look around."
Mike Bowen of River Falls is a regular at First National Bank of River Falls Field for Fighting Fish games and attended Saturday's game with friends.
"We had a blast," he said. "I thought it was very cool and very well organized. This ballpark is the best thing to happen in this town since I've lived here."
On the field, 46-year-old Tony Garner of the Plum City Blues got the start on the mound for the All-Stars against Hamburger, and after surrendering a home run on the second pitch of the game proceeded to strike out the side.
"What a great time," he said. "Everybody enjoyed it. I enjoyed it after the second pitch. A little bit of a hanger there and he deposited it where he should, but after that it was a lot of fun."
Garner, who has been playing for the Blues since 1996, said pitching against the Saints was one of the highlights of his baseball career.
"At my age, to be able to still throw against these guys and only give up a run, and strike out the side; it rekindles the old spirit to get fired up for the rest of the summer," he said.
After coming up empty in the Home Run Derby, Brian Giebel of the Fighting Fish ripped the first pitch he saw from Hamburger, a former Minnesota Twins prospect, into the right-center field gap for a double.
"That felt really good," he said. "I'll remember that the rest of my life."
Like Garner and Giebel, most of the SCVBL All-Stars are long-time league veterans. Josh Eidem of the River Falls Fighting Fish, who managed the All-Stars Saturday along with Chris LeBreche of the Hudson River Rats, said it was a great way to honor the league's "hometown heroes."
"There was an advantage to playing the game this early in the season," he said. "If some of the college kids are back, maybe the roster looks a little different. We had to strike that balance between playing to win and honoring those guys who have been longtime players."
Hamburger, who is known as The Mayor with Saints fans because of his popularity at CHS Field, gave First National Bank of River Falls Field and its fans high marks.
"What a pristine ballpark," he said. "You could tell they made it with love. And I heard that they have a couple 80-year-old guys that come out here and help, and I heard that one of them was out here at almost sunrise this morning plucking dandelions. I honestly would love to sign that guy a ball just because I respect that a lot. That's how much I love this game too. It was an honor to come here and play."
Eidem, the former president of the RFBC, called it another great day at First National Bank of River Falls Field.
"What a great atmosphere," he said as the post-game fireworks went off. "This is what River Falls baseball is all about, and I think it was really neat to show it off to another class organization."